Defense: Iran and the elections
How will the decision to go to the polls effect Israel’s calculations on if and when to strike Tehran’s nuclear facilities?
Ehud Olmert at the Jerusalem Post Conference Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-16 fighter jets flew to Iraq and bombed the Osirak
reactor under construction near Baghdad.
Three weeks later, Israel went
to the polls and Menachem Begin’s Likud Party defeated Shimon Peres’s Alignment
by half a percentage point despite last minute polls predicting an opposite
Was it the successful strike against Iraq’s reactor that gained
Begin a second term in office? No one can say for certain, although it would be
difficult to imagine that the upcoming elections did not play a role – even if a
minute one – in the government’s calculations and considerations before
authorizing the risky operation.
Fast-forward 31 years and Israel is once
again on its way to elections and possibly to Iran, to bomb its nuclear
The question now is how and if the upcoming elections factor
into Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s
calculations regarding Iran and whether they should attack before elections or
There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument.
On the one hand, it is possible that Netanyahu will look to attack Iran before
elections with the aim of winning the vote on the heels of a successful strike,
as Begin did back in 1981.
This could be a major consideration for Barak,
whose Independence Party launched its campaign this week under the slogan “The
right man [Barak – Y.K.] for security.”
In the party’s ads, which were
published in Thursday’s newspapers, Independence does not have a website or even
an official party email address.
The ad refers to Barak’s personal
Facebook page and to a Gmail address.
If it wasn’t already clear, all of
this together means that the elections are not about getting Independence into
the Knesset but rather about ensuring that Barak continues to serve as defense
minister, or at least in a position of influence in the next cabinet – maybe as
Israel's first “minister for Iran.”
The problem with this argument is
that Iran is not Iraq and this time the ayatollahs, together with Hezbollah,
Hamas and possibly even Syria, are expected to respond quite aggressively to an
Israeli strike. This would mean that even if the original strike against the nuclear facilities is successful, the
large number of casualties and extensive devastation to the home front could
cost Netanyahu the elections.
On the other hand, it is possible that
Netanyahu will anyhow prefer to wait until after elections before deciding to
attack Iran. This way, he will solidify his rule – current polls show him
leading – with the elections, after which he will attack when he knows that his
continued premiership is secure for another few years.
The problem with
this argument is that in Israeli politics nothing is certain until election day
and someone who is leading in the polls in May could end up losing the vote in
September. Netanyahu will therefore be taking something of a risk.
upcoming elections might actually be the catalyst for the outpour of criticism
of Netanyahu and Barak this week.
This is what has happened in the past
week: IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said in a series of interviews
that sanctions against Iran were proving to be effective and that he was
optimistic that the ayatollahs would ultimately decide against manufacturing a
nuclear weapon. Next came Netanyahu and Barak, who each individually
contradicted Gantz’s assessment and said that the sanctions were not
On Friday, the real bombshell was dropped when former Shin Bet
(Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin, who decided to tell a town
hall-style meeting that he did not trust Netanyahu’s and Barak’s decision-
making and accused them of being led by “messianic feelings.”
attention was diverted to The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York City where
former Mossad chief Meir Dagan said that Iran needs to be dealt with by the
world and not Israel, where former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said that a
strike is not needed tomorrow morning and where former prime minister Ehud
Olmert went so far as to question whether an Israeli strike would even achieve
the result needed to ensure Israel’s security.
There are a number of ways
to look at this cacophony on Iran.
On one hand there are those who could
argue that the group of former officials is actively undermining Israel's
efforts to get the world to crack down on Iran, making it seem as though
Israel’s threat to use military force is actually an empty one.
other hand, it could be looked at differently. By describing Netanyahu and Barak
as extremists with messianic tendencies, these former officials are giving the
impression that Israel really is going to attack Iran despite the misgivings of
almost the entire international community. This could end up helping to get the
world to crack down even further on Iran.
The problem is that what these
former officials say cannot be taken merely at face value since most of them
have political ambitions. Olmert is a former prime minister who is yearning for
a political comeback once he finishes his legal saga; Dagan has already
established an NGO aimed at changing the government system in Israel; and
Ashkenazi is plotting his own political run for two years from now, once the
mandatory cooling-off period expires.
The only one who doesn’t have these
ambitions – at least for the time being – is Diskin, who known for his cool and
restrained demeanor. What brought him to speak in such a way is still mostly a
Diskin has probably been troubled by this for some time and both
Ashkenazi and Dagan, who know the former Shin Bet chief well, said that he
“spoke from the heart.”
What remains unknown is what suddenly caused him
to speak up now.
While these are genuine differences on how to view the
threat from Iran, even Netanyahu and Barak agree that Israel still needs to give
time for sanctions and diplomacy to take effect before deciding whether or not
to attack. The next round of talks between the Western powers and Iran in
Baghdad later this month will be a critical juncture for Israel in determining
its policy and what it will do this summer.